the E. St. Julien Cox Museum. Photo courtesy of St. Peter Area Chamber of Commerce
We all know that Minnesota’s capital was once called Pig’s Eye (aren’t you glad that was changed?), but did you know that St. Paul wasn’t always the only contender for the Minnesota state capital? St. Peter, located just an hour southwest of the Twin Cities, was once recommended to be the capital due to its centrality, unlike St. Paul’s extremely eastern location. Although the bill never came to fruition (a chairman of a territorial council actually hid the physical text to stop the change from happening), St. Peter played an important part in Minnesota’s 19th century history. Today, St. Peter is a relatively small rural town of 11,000 people—it might not be our state capital but its history and small-town charm make for a great day trip.
Once you arrive in St. Peter, start your morning off with a coffee and a baked good from River Rock Coffee, located in a historic brick building right on Minnesota Avenue, the main drag of St. Peter. River Rock’s industrial light fixtures, worn brick walls and large front windows make for a peaceful, cozy coffee-drinking experience. Grab a seat by the front windows and make sure to Instagram your beautifully crafted latte. Dedicated to sustainability and organic ingredients, River Rock Café makes a conscience effort to use locally sourced ingredients with eggs, ham and bacon coming from Prairie Pride Farm in Mankato, honey from Hendryck’s Apiaries in Layfayette, MN and organic produce coming from a variety of farms in St. Peter, Henderson and Northfield.
For those interested in history, make sure to stop at the Treaty Site History Center, the headquarters of the Nicollet County Historical Society. All exhibits and artifacts explore the stories of Nicollet County’s first inhabitants, including the Sioux (Dakota) people, explorers, traders and settlers. A quick history tid-bit: The 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was signed in St. Peter, giving 24 million acres of Dakota land to the U.S. government which allowed for westward expansion.
St. Peter also possesses quite a few places listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the E. St. Julien Cox House, a Carpenter-Gothic-style house built in 1871. The house was owned by one of the earliest settlers in St. Peter, Eugene Cox, who was an attorney, St. Peter’s first Mayor and a representative to the Minnesota State House and Senate. Another historic building is the Church of the Holy Communion, a Gothic-revival architecture built in 1869. Still an active parish, the bell from the first wooden church structure built in 1855 has rung on the death of every American president since Abraham Lincoln.
Visit the Hillstrom Museum of Art at Gustavus Adolphus College for exhibits of national, international and regional artwork or shop downtown at some of St. Peter’s best boutiques and gift shops, including Refinery Boutique, Generation Boutique, Swedish Kontur Imports or Genuine Amish furniture, all located on Minnesota Avenue.
For lunch or dinner, visit El Agave for a margarita and a great selection of Mexican food or Patrick’s on Third, an Irish Pub serving Mexican food, pizza and burgers with over 30 beers on tap and a large selection of Irish Whiskey. Trivia takes place on Tuesday nights while live music is provided Sunday nights from 4 to 7 p.m.
For a slight detour on your way home, stop in Henderson, a small-town nestled right in the Minnesota River Valley, just a few miles from Highway 169. A town of roughly 800 people, Henderson’s main street is registered on the National Historic Register of Places. Stop at Toody’s Sweet Treats for one of their famous “sissy” ice cream cones (they are very big, so prepare yourself!) or pick a flavor combination from their extensive malt and shake menu. Return in the summer for the town’s Classic Car Roll-In that takes place every Tuesday night and grab a bite to eat at the Henderson RoadHaus.